Raised as a Catholic, John Hamil has since found a novel way to protest what he sees as privilege for the "carpenter-based religion", writes Caroline O'Doherty.
It is several decades since John Hamill was last down on his knees observing the Angeles or reciting the Rosary, but the words trip off his tongue like he’s ordering his favourite takeaway. Such is the legacy of an Irish childhood which he describes as typically Catholic, only with added prayer.
“My parents were devout and pious Roman Catholics, and still are — so in our house, we said prayers quite a lot,” he recalls.
And then something else quite typically Irish happened — youthful boredom and teenage apathy gradually won out over fears of parental disapproval and eternal damnation and John stopped practising the religion.
“It just all felt like an enormous chore, so we used to figure out ways to avoid Mass,” he says, describing a ritual that will bring back memories for many. “I remember lots of tricky conversations with my mother that began: ‘Who said Mass?’ and ‘What was in the homily?’ ”
Less typical, perhaps, is what John did next. While many young Irish people hold on to at least some of their Catholic faith and traditions after they fly the nest, taking them out for special occasions as they go through life, John had a conversion. He is now a follower of the Congregationalist Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, otherwise known as a Pastafarian.
Of course, there is no such thing as a flying spaghetti monster and certainly not a deified form, but that hasn’t stopped John going the legal route to defend its right to exist as a concept if nothing else and to assert its followers’ right to be treated equally with members of traditional churches.
He recently took a discrimination case against the National Transport Authority (NTA) after he was refused free travel on the Luas on the day of the papal Mass in the Phoenix Park last August while ticketholders for the event were exempt from the fare.
His argument was that he was going to a venue beside the Phoenix Park to attend a gathering of fellow Pastafarians and was as entitled to free travel as Catholics attending their church event. He was adamant that he wanted his €3.70 fare repaid. Photos produced to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), which handles equality actions, show John joining the travelling crowds on the day with a jaunty red colander on his head — the spaghetti-straining utensil being the ceremonial headwear of Pastafarians.
The NTA, or rather the NTA’s expensive, publicly-funded legal team, argued that the free travel offer was not made in a discriminatory manner, but in the interests of public safety as it was important to keep the crowds moving rather than have crushes forming on platforms as people queued to buy tickets. John’s claim was vexatious and frivolous, they argued.
The WRC disagreed, finding that he was raising a genuine issue. But did he get his €3.70 back? He did not. He was caught out on a technicality, having wrongly classified the grounds under which his claim was made in his correspondence with the NTA.
“We’ve lost cases on legal technicalities rather than the merits of the argument. We could do with getting a few lawyers into the congregation,” he says of the steep learning curve that sent him sliding unceremoniously to the bottom that day.
John, who has had a long association with Atheist Ireland, also lost an earlier case in 2017 when he claimed discrimination by Dublin City Council for excluding his congregation from an interfaith forum and charter.
On this occasion, he lost because he failed to prove that his church was a real religion — a ruling that he finds “bizarre and hilarious” because, he argues, who is to say what’s real about any religion?
“Is Scientology a religion? Think of something like Taoism which is a well-practised philosophy all over the East — if you get a hundred experts on Taoism, 50 will tell you it’s a philosophy and 50 will tell you it’s a religion.”
Much was made of John’s garb, but he wonders why his colander is considered odd when the Catholic Church is full of “priests in pretty frocks” ruled by a Pope in a “tall, white bonnet”. He knows such descriptions annoy some Catholics, as does his tendency to describe the faith as a “carpenterbased religion”.
“What’s wrong with carpenters? It seems like a perfectly respectable trade to me and also, if Jesus wasn’t a carpenter, is it better that he be a lazy do-nothing? It’s the gospel of Mark. Chapter six, verse three says Jesus was a carpenter. If you’re going to get cross about Jesus being a carpenter, go and get cross with Mark the evangelist. Don’t be shouting at me.”
Pastafarianism was founded in the US in 2005 by Bobby Henderson in response to moves by state education boards to return to teaching creationism. Henderson campaigned for equal time to be given to teaching that man was created by the flying spaghetti monster — His Noodliness.
The church has followers in numerous countries, all campaigning against different domestic laws and policies, and all facing accusations that they are disrespecting religion— a charge John rejects.
It’s not just the €3.70 or the signature on a charter that bothers him. It’s the principle and the practice that stems from it. He cites the exemption in the equality legislation [section 37 of the Employment Equality Act] that allows Catholic schools discriminate against teachers of different faiths or none in order to safeguard the ethos of the institution.
“It creates a chilling effect — atheist teachers have to dress up and pretend to be Catholics every single day or else they can be disciplined,” he says. “How can that be right?”
It’s also the €2m+ the State spends each year on chaplains for third-level institutions and the military.
He’s currently awaiting a response from the Department of Defence to his objections to this policy. And he says he’ll continue to raise other objections and take cases whenever he catches such policies in action to the detriment of people in minority religions and none.
Meanwhile, the current day version of the Hamill household is rather different from the one John grew up in. His four children are in Catholic schools because the family live in Co Monaghan where there is no alternative, but they are free to take part in religion class or not.
Because their school has no separate facilities to cater for non-participants, they have to remain in class during the lessons and as a result, there have been First Communions.
“But my son is heading for confirmation and he says he wants a Nonfirmation. So we’ll go out for a nice family meal and I’ll stand up and say a few words and it’ll be just like what his friends are doing only without the man in the pretty frock. I don’t know yet if I’ll be wearing the colander."